Friday, October 31, 2014

The Queen of Mahou Shojou: A Review of Princess Tutu

Written By: Platitude

Hello! I discovered Otaku Nuts a few months ago, and recently decided to apply all of my pent-up bile into writing a few reviews and other things for the site. I'll be writing a few pieces from time to time, so get used to me being here, bitches.

     Due much in part to Sailor Moon's success in the mid to late 1990s, the magical girl genre has become one of the "faces of anime" to people who are unfamiliar with the medium. If one from this group were to be asked to describe what the subject matter of a typical anime would be, magical doe-eyed schoolgirls flying around and battling evil ranks just above incest in terms of popular answer choices, although it still comes in second behind tentacle porn. 

Of course, there is much more to the genre than the big eyes and short skirts aesthetic that the general public perceives, as producers realized that in order to capitalize on the path Sailor Moon had forged into the west, a magical girl series must evolve beyond the original concepts provided by the likes of Sally the Witch. And thus came the Tutu.

Yep, it's called Princess Tutu. Wait! No! Come back!

     Princess Tutu was developed by Ikuko Itoh, who served on the team behind the anime version of Sailor Moon, and was animated by the studio Hal Film Maker, who has since merged with the Yumeta Company to create TYO Animations. It was first released in Japan in 2002, but it wasn't until 2004 that the first copies of the anime were released in the United States. During this time, magical girl shows were in a transitory phase, still in the process of casting off the restrictive conventions that had been imposed on the genre for over thirty years. 

The show proved to be a catalyst of sorts, with its darker tone and aesthetics inspiring newer productions such as Puella Magi Madoka Magica, and spurring on a wave of more philosophical shows in the vein of Mawaru PenguinDrum. However, it still pays homage to its roots, retaining an innocent tone which appeals to the genre's original target audience, a concept which seems to have become completely lost in the deluge of "mature" magical girl shows of recent years.

Now everybody knows that it isn't Princess Tooo-Tooo...
    The anime follows the character Duck, a girl who is enrolled at a famous ballet school which is situated in a large, Bavarian-style town. Like any typical magical girl protagonist, her relatively normal life of making it to class on time, crushing on her fellow classmate Mytho, a regal looking boy who reminds Duck of a prince she had seen in one of her dreams, and avoiding the death glares and forced-marriage attempts from her teacher, Mr. Cat, is utterly turned upside down at the beginning of the series. She is brought into contact with the mysterious Drosselmeyer, an author who was assumed to be dead, who grants her the ability to become Princess Tutu. 

After saving Mytho from falling to his death, Duck also has it revealed to her that her true form is that of... Well, a duck.

 Later, Drosselmeyer reappears and tells her that her duty as Princess Tutu is to collect Mytho's heart shards, pieces of his emotions that have been scattered throughout the world. It turns out that he was the main character from a book Drosselmeyer had been writing at the time of his death, in which he played a prince that shatters his own heart in order to seal away the tale's antagonist, a giant raven. Somehow, he was transported into Duck's world, where he was discovered by Fakir, another ballet student whose over-protectiveness towards Mytho and cold demeanor annoys Duck.

Will you be my protector? My big, strong protector?
... Yeah, guess who's considered the OTP for Yaoi fanfiction writers...

     What is probably most impressive about the anime's plot is that it makes fantastic use of the concept of meta-fiction. The story goes to great lengths to make the overarching plot feel self-contained. The book the Prince and the Raven, in which Drosselmeyer had first created Mytho, Princess Tutu, and other characters that later reappear in Duck's world, is retold in brief flashbacks at the beginning of each episode. 

However, the story becomes increasingly twisted and distorted as Duck's timeline begins to overlap with the plot of Drosselmeyer's book, and it becomes almost impossible to separate one from the other. For quite awhile, it feels to the viewer as if the entirety of Princess Tutu might just be another volume in the tale of the Prince and the Raven, a self-contained plot within yet another story, an idea and experience that no other show has been able to pull off quite as effectively. Other anime may have used meta-fiction as a plot point, but few have ever attempted to use it for something other than fourth-wall-breaking, self-referential humor, far less as a mature, driving factor of the story. 

"...fourth-wall-breaking, self-referential humor..." Yes, Space Dandy, we're looking at you.

     Perhaps the biggest criticism that can be given in respect to Princess Tutu's characters is that while most of them are well rounded and interesting, with many, most notably Fakir going through Okabe Rintarou-level character development, they never feel like the focal point of the show. The massive implication of meta-fiction's appearance leads to the lessening of each cast member's individual worth, as the audience's attention is diverted more towards the "big picture" than under other circumstances. 

Their personal struggles almost seem to be swept under the rug, even Duck's, who probably suffers the most from the anime's structure. Even her role as the main character is altered, and Mytho, who played the protagonist in the Prince and the Raven, becomes increasingly central to the plot as the series progresses. This is a shame, because Mytho is probably one of the show's weakest characters. 

One of the implications of him shattering his heart at the end of Drosselmeyer's book is the loss of his emotions, which makes him unavoidably lifeless and dull. Of course, this was probably intended, and as the pieces of his heart are restored, he slowly gains more depth, but this is no excuse for just being a bad idea from the beginning, no matter how well executed it is. While others such as Duck and Rue, Mytho's self-proclaimed girlfriend, take leaps and bounds in the building of their already fantastic characters, Mytho seems like he's forced to play catch-up to them while being kneecapped by the metaphorical .44 Magnum of shoddy design.

One could be forgiven for mistaking his name to be Mute-O.
    The animation for the show is lackluster at best, which isn't much of a surprise for a company whose most notable previous work was Boys Be..., a series so generic that the show's box set could be ground up and used as wallpaper paste (okay, it should also be noted that Hal Film Maker animated Macross 7: The Galaxy is Calling Me, so the site doesn't get mortared in a rabid Otaku raid). 

Characters move and speak with minimal choppiness under most circumstances, and three-dimensional animation techniques blend in well with more conventional images. That being said, there are a few issues with the actual art direction. It has been noted by others that Princess Tutu's color palette can easily transition from the colorful cutesy-ness that the magical girl genre has been stereotyped for to a much more subdued theme when the story gets sinister, but the production department apparently subscribed to the school of thought that believes a dark tone is best represented by adding bloom to everything. 

The effect is used so liberally that even the obscene amount of fill lighting in Twilight Princess looks high-contrast by comparison. When watched on a fairly small television in a well-lit room, half of the features in some of the shots are impossible to make out, especially the characters. They're all so bloody white even during normal scenes that when the bloom goes boom, it looks like their faces are backlit with fucking industrial lamps. 

The only explanation for this is that both of these series take place after the sun went supernova...

     The fact that the Hal Film Maker was quite a small studio also shows, especially during the ballet sequences that replace what would typically be fight scenes in other series. Losing the visceral appeal of explosions and soft, squishy bags of raspberry jam popping like party favors means that these confrontations need extremely fluid, beautiful animation in order to keep the audience watching. Sadly, Princess Tutu just didn't manage to obtain a big enough of a budget to make this happen (maybe the finance department was just as turned off by the name as everybody else). 

Many of the pirouettes and fouett├ęs that occur throughout these dance scenes are jarringly artificial, and some almost look like .gif files being played on an extremely old laptop whose frame rate chugs at the slightest provocation. However, the most offensively blatant cost-cutting attempts concern what can only be laughably described as "finishing" moves, such as lifts and other techniques that typically round out whatever routine the character is performing. Here, most of the shots are little more than static pictures gussied up with dramatic zoom-ins and pans to simulate actual motion. 

Half of the time, the animators didn't even have the common decency to add lip-syncing in these sequences, feeling content to sit back while the dialogue track plays over the pictures. The entire department responsible for the artistic aspects of the show seems to be composed of three designers: Howard, a starry-eyed rookie bursting with new ideas but doesn't know how things function around his new workplace, Billy, a sellout that would later find fortune and fame as the art director for movies such as Oblivion and Transcendence, and Sphincter, who would posthumously gain international recognition after a YouTube video of him jumping a zoo's fence and dry-humping a Bengal tiger goes viral. 
 "Hey!" cries Howard one day, eyes glistening with artistic fervor, "Why don't we make a dark, almost psychedelic scene where Fakir faces off against an army of raven-headed soldiers that look like rejects from the Penguin Cafe Orchestra?"

    "Sure," Billy replies, eyes glued to the picture of a ruined, grey-brown cityscape that was his desktop background, "I'll get started on the shots. Now, you wanted lots of bloom, right?"
    "Umm... Not really, I thought it would be nice if we tried not to do that for once." Howard replies, while glancing tentatively in Billy's direction.
    "Yeah, well, I like it, and so do other people."
    "But it looks like-"
    "Hey, what are we talking about?" Asks a thick voice, interrupting Howard mid-sentence.
    "Shut up Sphincter," replies Billy grumpily, "go back to your boppy balloon."
    "Oh, okay, but I just wanted to say that making images actually move is really hard, so I'm just gonna make a bunch of pictures and randomly zoom in and out of them instead." Sphincter mumbles, drool running down his chin. Meanwhile, Howard begins to cry and slam his head on his desk.
    "You know what?" Replies Billy over the sound of Howard's sobs and grunts, "that's not a bad idea. I say screw this noise and break for lunch." Howard then commits suicide during the ensuing break by intentionally choking to death on his croissant. 

Most readers are probably quite familiar with the Penguin Cafe, but why risk confusing a few ignorant peons?

    Another unique aspect of Princess Tutu is its soundtrack, which serves to be both fantastic and mediocre simultaneously. During most scenes, the background music stays where its name implies, behind the scenes. While none of these pieces are out of place, they aren't particularly notable. In fact, pretty much all of the tracks that were created as original pieces specifically for inclusion in the anime, most of them by the Sofia Concert Orchestra, can be described as such. 

There aren't any songs that one might find stuck in their head after an episode ends, and neither the opening nor closing songs are of much importance, and aren't really worthy of repeated viewings. That being said, the introduction does provide the viewer with a tantalizing glimpse of what the dance sequences could have been if Billy and Sphincter didn't screw the animation over, with crisp, whimsical animation that flows like water, along with some other very pretty shots. Of course, the first sentence of this paragraph wouldn't contain the word "fantastic" if the show's music didn't contain some kind of standout feature. 

Ballet scenes are accompanied with some of the greatest classical works of all time, from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite to Wagner's Twilight of the Gods. Even if the other works in the show were great, they would still be overshadowed by the sheer depth and scope of the famous compositions used, with at least forty different pieces being featured in a substantial fashion.

Let's all just take a look at this costume and try to figure out how the hell her breasts stay covered...

    Luci Christian heads the superb English dub cast as Duck, portraying each of her many eccentricities masterfully. Throughout the show, Duck is constantly jumping from mood to mood, going from pouty one moment to heroic the next, like Taiga on a caffeine drip. Luckily Christian, who's proven her chops as Nami from One Piece and Nagisa Furukawa from Clannad, keeps in step with her animated counterpart through every twist and turn, and was rightfully nominated by the American Anime Awards in 2007 for her role. 

Other characters are voiced by similarly prestigious actors, with Jessica Boone demonstrating fantastic range as Rue, Chris Patton as Fakir, and Jay Hickman as Mytho. Todd Waite, who looks likes an older Benedict Cumberbatch  and is probably better known as TJP, also deserves special mention as Mr. Cat, who speaks with a nasal, lisping accent that seems humanly impossible to make. Having played all of about five roles in the anime industry, the guy has serious skills when it comes to voicing overly bombastic animals that have been subjected to a good dose of anthropomorphism. 

Quite a few liberties have been taken in regards to the show's translation into English, most noticeably with a few of the characters' names. Duck, of course, was known as Ahiru in the Japanese version, and Mr. Cat shirks the typical tradition of retaining the title of "Sensei" even in the dub. Other changes include some dialogue-heavy scenes, in which the entire structure of a conversation is altered. This proves to not be that big of a deal, as most of these alterations, even those dealing with what could be critical pieces of dialogue, don't effect the story in the slightest. If anything, they can even add clarity in some situations. Besides the obvious name changes, all of this is almost unnoticeable to people who haven't seen both the subtitled and dubbed versions.

It takes balls to play a character with this bad of a fashion sense.
    All shows, no matter how good they are, must come to an end. Sure, some go faster than others (Venus Versus Virus), some drag on for years (One Piece), and a few very special series may take decades to leave the public consciousness (Death Note). However, even fewer shows push the boundaries of what anime can do, shifting preconceptions and shattering traditions with such force that all shows that are released subsequently are inescapably indebted to it. 

Princess Tutu is one of these rare gems, worthy enough to be placed alongside Ghost in the Shell and Neon Genesis Evangelion for its service to the magical girl genre and anime as a whole. While the series harks back to a simpler time when a unique plot and well-balanced cast of characters was enough to create a great anime without resorting to the cheap gimmickry that many modern shows have, it was no old-timer shaking its walking stick at teenagers. The anime put conventions and overused tropes in a choke-hold, body slammed them into the floor of the ring, and used their intestines as jump-ropes. It then daintily entrechats out of the ring, for it is still called Princess Tutu.

The Good: Fantastic plot.
                 Great character development.
                 Soundtrack full of recognizable classics.

The Bad: Billy's bloom.

The Ugly: Sphincter's "animation."

Pretty Damn Good

Standout Episodes: Episode 9, episode 12, episode 13, episode 17, episode 25, and episode 26.

Princess Tutu was directed by Ikuko Itoh and produced by Hal Film Maker.  Please respect the creators by refraining from torrenting and illegal streaming!

Born from a freak lab accident, Platitude grew up in an impenetrable section of the Amazon Rainforest with nothing but his wits and a flying, talking arapaima sidekick named Scuppernong.
After being discovered by South American cocaine smugglers, he managed to reach the United States with the help of a friendly local cartel and three condoms of pure, fresh-cut Colombian bam-bam. There, he financed a new life by betraying Scuppernong and selling him to an aquarist. Platitude immediately spent his $20.00 fortune on a bootleg copy of Boku no Pico, and a legend began... 
You can find his mad scribblings during his frequent bouts of insanity here

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